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Nikita Kucherov, unheralded superstar part 4: Quebec, Syracuse, Tampa

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The beginning of Nikita Kucherov’s path in North America.

NHL: MAR 10 Lightning at Maple Leafs Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In early 2018, Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express wrote a fantastic piece about Nikita Kucherov’s life story—from the very, very beginning. We’ll be bringing it to you in parts this week because it’s a very long article. Here is the fourth and final part of the translation, where Kucherov’s mother Svetlana and first coach Gennady Kurdin talk about Nikita’s move to playing in Quebec, Syracuse, and eventually Tampa.

If you use this material, please credit Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express and Natalia (@exxtragalactic) of Raw Charge.

A trade to the countryside

At first, the Lightning sent Kucherov to the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, the team coached by Patrick Roy, where Alexander Radulov once shined. But it was complicated. In November, Kucherov was traded to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. From a beautiful French-Canadian city, he had to move to essentially the countryside.

“They could only play two foreigners in one game,” Kurdin explains. “In Quebec, Roy favoured Mikhail Grigorenko and one Norwegian player. When Nikita got it, he asked to be traded—to a weaker team, but one where he would play. Last summer, he told me that he had met Roy somewhere, and the latter admitted that he hadn’t thought that Nikita would do well. His bet was on Grigorenko.”

“The three months that Nikita spent in Quebec did him only good,” Svetlana adds. “He learned English from scratch: leaving Russia, he hadn’t known a thing, but quickly got to it when the need arose. He had a tutor there, a Russian woman named Lena. It seems that she worked very well. In Quebec, Nikita had Grigorenko; in Rouyn-Noranda, there were no Russians, so he reinforced his new skills while talking with the guys. Now he reads books in English; here, for example, we have Chris Chelios’s autobiography.”

But in Quebec, Nikita spent games on the bench, and he wasn’t okay with it. After his injury and operations he had to play and strengthen his form; instead, for every game he played, he sat out another two. Roy wanted him in the Remparts, but still wouldn’t put much trust into him. Nikita got traded to the westernmost part of Quebec. But he wasn’t interested in partying anyway; he was there for hockey. And in the second round of the playoffs, although no one believed in them, the Huskies won the series against the Remparts 4-1. Kucherov scored four goals and got 9 points, six of them in just one game.

“A Russian man all around”

The next season was in the AHL, but just for a couple months. Steven Stamkos’s injury led to the Lightning calling Kucherov up from the Syracuse Crunch, where he had already scored 24 points in 17 games.

His first match with the Lightning was on November 26, 2013, against the Rangers, with Henrik Lundqvist in net.

“When my boys in Red Army complained that they were given few chances and 10-15-second shifts, I’d tell Kucherov, ‘Come out and score. They’ll give you more next time.’ And to all three of them, I said, ‘Wait a little. Soon you’ll be complaining about never leaving the ice.’ It did eventually come true, and we laughed when I reminded them about it.”

Nikita learned the main point: instead of complaining about lack of trust, you should take every chance. He was called up to Tampa and scored not just during his first shift but on the first touch. That’s how you do it. He scored in the following game, too. After 10 games, he stayed with the Lightning. Svetlana was worriedly counting: eighth, ninth…

“We have the puck from that game against the Rangers, framed neatly by the club, next to Nikita’s other prizes: medals from U18, U20 and adult World Championships,” Svetlana says. “When he got called up, he brought a small bag from Syracuse, thinking he’d be sent back. But he stayed, and only got the rest of his stuff back next summer when Nikita Nesterov brought it to him. It was for a good reason that Gennadyich always taught them: even if you get five seconds, score, hold on to it!

Mom still watches Nikita’s every game live on television. Father cannot afford such a luxury because he has work in the morning. Svetlana, on the other hand, won’t settle until she calls or texts her son after the game and congratulates him if everything is good.

“I don’t go to bed until I get a reply,” she says. “I call him every day and immediately begin fretting if he doesn’t pick up. Nikita texts me, ‘Why are you panicking? I was busy. Wrote back when I could.” But I worry; I’m his mom, after all. And seeing the game live isn’t enough for me; I watch it again in the afternoon…”

Meanwhile, Nikita keeps criticizing himself. Both mother and coach agree: the higher Kucherov climbs as a player, the less satisfied he is with himself. It seems that even after winning the Hart Trophy or the Stanley Cup, he will pick apart every moment to see what he could’ve done better.

In 2016, many people were surprised when Kucherov signed a rather modest bridge deal with an AAV of $4.76 milion. Dan Milstein wasn’t yet working with him at the time, but he still can explain the reason.

“I know one thing: Nikita didn’t want to wait. If you remember Sergei Fedorov’s ’97-98 season story, he waited until February. Some missed whole seasons, even two. Kucherov could have waited a little to get a completely different contract. But I know first-hand that he wanted to play hockey instead of sitting in front of the TV and watching his team. For him, hockey is #1 and money is #2. I’ll never forget his words after the Lightning had missed the playoffs, that he never wanted to watch the Stanley Cup from the side again.

He is a sportsman by nature, and that’s why he went to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey without an NHL contract. An injury at such a time could have seriously affected his career, but he didn’t care about it and became one of Team Russia’s best. Svetlana says that Nikita (again, as a good son) consulted his parents about it. But he didn’t have many doubts; before, he had never played for the adult national team, and that was a tournament against the strongest players. The 2016/17 season was when Russia really noticed him, and it was important for Kucherov.

“Nikita is a Russian man all around,” Milstein says. “He has an amazing relationship with Nastya. She came to see him when he was 18 and playing in the juniors, and now she goes to all his home games and watches all the others on TV. He has many Russian friends, goes to lunch with Namestnikov after every practice. Every summer, he visits Russia. Whenever other Russian guys come to Tampa, Nikita always tries to find the time to grab a dinner with them the night before. He asks me about how they’re doing all the time.”

“It’s a pity that the NHL players will miss the Olympics this time,” Kurdin says. “Nikita is in such a great shape, in such a good age! If he had played there, he would have become even better known in Russia. But when there’s no chance, what can he do? When he had the opportunity, he went to the World Cup of Hockey without a contract. Now, there’s the Stanley Cup left. The team is good…”

Nikita Kucherov with Gennady Kurdin’s trainees in Podolsk.
Photo courtesy of Gennady Kurdin

“Hard work and modesty,” says the coach when asked which qualities helped Kucherov achieve such heights. Svetlana said it is determination. As we see, none put raw talent first. And it’s right; otherwise Nikita would have been picked first, instead of 58th, and had got into the NHL much sooner.

But it is Kucherov who is the top NHL scorer at the moment. It’s because two weeks after the sixth game of the Stanley Cup finals, he goes out for field training in Podolsk with Kurdin and his 12-year-old boys. While some players spend their nights in luxury restaurants, he goes running twice a day with the little boys (and brings new sticks for them each year), joins them for soccer and praises the modest lunch he gets at a hotel that is nothing like what NHL players are used to.

Later, he has fun talking and taking pictures with these kids. Maybe, in a decade, the mother of one of these boys, Kurdin’s new trainees, will proudly show some correspondent a picture of her 15-year-old son with Nikita Kucherov, a Soviet hockey player born 1.5 years after the fall of the USSR.